Classic Flix Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Greetings all and sundry! On the advice of and other communications from Ruth, I am going to focus my abilities on a favorite actor of mine. With distinct attention to the actor’s innate ability to scare the Beejeebus out of those in the audience, without saying much of anything threatening. To that end, please allow me to introduce you to Robert Mitchum. Rocking the lead in first and only time director Charles Laughton’s magnificent, impressionistic and visually unique Masterpiece.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Our film begins on the banks of the Ohio River. On the lee side of the Appalachians in West Virginia in the midst of the Great Depression. Along winding country roads to an old, black, top down convertible with Robert Mitchum behind the wheel. In a white shirt, starched collar and black string tie. Matching suit and big black hat. As Harry Powell. Con man, Gigolo and lady’s man. Borderline Socio and Psychopath and self appointed Reverend. With ‘LOVE’ above the knuckles of his right hand. And ‘HATE’ on his left. Who sometimes talks to Gods. And whose favorite toy is a switchblade knife. Which he uses to carry out his plan and God’s work. Reverend Powell rolls into town and finds himself at a Bijou watching a bump and grind artist ply her rather weak trade. When he’s boxed in by the local police and brought before a judge for a crime whose punishment is thirty days in jail.

Cut to more of the placid Ohio. Fertile farmland and small, well kept, maintained and tilled family farms. In the midst of one farm, there is a young brother and sister. John and Pearl Harper playing as the family car rolls up with their father, Ben. Pistol in hand. With lots to say and do with no time for either. It seems that the father, Peter Graves, long before Mission: Impossible has killed two men while helping to rob a bank of $10,000. He helps his kids hide the swag and swear never to reveal its location just as sirens draw near and the cops show up to take Pa away.

Pa draws the same judge who has sentenced Reverend Powell. And as fate would have it, Pa Harper draws the Reverend for a cell mate. Until Pa’s date with the Hangman. Time is short and Mitchum does his best to ingratiate himself, but Pa keeps his mouth shut about the money from the bank heist. Though he does talk about the farm, his wife, Willa. Shelly Winters, Test flying what would evolve into the tried and true prototype for her future characters in Lolita, Alfie and Harper. There is a strength in Willa. That nearly conquers her vulnerability. With two growing kids and a town of nosy, gossipy, holier than thou neighbors.

The Reverend is released before Pa Harper is hanged and takes his time on just the right approach to the recently widowed Harper. Who works as a waitress in the town’s Soda Shop and does her best to ignore the possibly well intentioned good, though snide advice of her co-workers. With John and Pearl in attendance, the Rev makes his first subtle move. With the classic Good vs. Evil tale of ‘Love and Hate’. So masterful is the Reverend’s telling, that Willa starts to show the first cracks in her armor. Which is duly noted as Willa sees something better. While John sees pure, smooth talking, evil.

Nature, greed and more than a subtle touch of peer pressure takes it course as Willa, the Reverend and the kids are seen more and more often. Culminating at a town picnic where Harry proposes to Willa off in the distance. John sees a bad moon rising, but is up against some heavy opposition. The wedding is consummated. Time, if not romance passes and the Rev goes into full press mode on John and Pearl. Willa overhears one evening and quickly has her throat slit and is disposed of in one of the creepiest modes in cinematic history.

Eyebrows start to raise in town as the Reverend’s tale that Willa lit out without a forwarding address doesn’t fly well. While John and Pearl start looking for anyway at all to split. That occurs after a questioning of Pearl heads south. John and Pearl run. Find a flat bottom boat and shove off as the Reverend falters behind. Leaving the kids with the Reverend’s loud, animal like snarl of defeat loud in their ears.Undaunted, the Reverend heads off. Kills a farmer and steals his horse and follows the river. Patient and finding his calm center. The Reverend follows leads that bring him to the home of Rachel Cooper. Superbly, near serenely played by Lilian Gish. Who takes in stray kids and gives them a home and chores to do.

Life is good. Until the Rev shows up just outside Mrs. Cooper’s white picket fence for a few bars of ‘Leaning on the Ever Lasting Arm’. Chorused by Mrs. Cooper as she cradles a shotgun while rocking on the front porch. The evening hymnal is interrupted by one of the girls, Ruby. As Mrs. Cooper blows out a candle and the Reverend disappears. Mrs. Cooper tells Ruby to round up the kids!

I won’t take the story farther. Lest I get into serious Spoiler territory…

What Makes This Film Good?

First and only time director Charles Laughton deftly borrowing and sometimes outright stealing the shadowy exposition of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. To raise hairs on the back of necks in what would be otherwise innocuous scenes. That these scenes for the most part feature Mr. Mitchum’s Reverend shot from low angles to highlight his height and breadth is just creepy icing on the cake. Laughton seems to have found the Alchemy of melding foreboding mood with palpable atmosphere and makes the most of it in frame after frame. In a film that many should look upon as a First Kiss. The yard stick that all others afterwards are measured. And often found wanting.

Symbolism seems to be running quietly amok throughout the film. Especially in the long, sedate scene when John poles the flat bottom boat through what looks like Palmetto thick bayou. Thick with tortoises, frogs and spider webs. Shadows and silhouettes abound. In halls, stairways, ladder ways and the horizon. More so once the sun goes down and lighting is supplied by a waning crescent moon on the river. And gaslight and candles within the towns.

All in a basic, though superbly executed film about good and evil. The children, John and Pearl score very high on the Cherub Meter. Though John is more iron willed, while Pearl is wide eyed and naive. Stacked against neighbors and town folk who are not who or what they appear to be. While also being far too judgmental and prone to gossip. Cautiously watched by the Reverend Powell. Who is delightfully near hypnotic to watch as evil incarnate. Beneath his smile, schtick and deep, calming Basso Profundo voice.

What Makes This Film Great?

All of the above. And Robert Mitchum reveling in and making the most of his physical presence. In an iconic role that would define him until Cape Fear, seven years later. Throwing either long shadows or tall silhouettes as he ambles through spartan, roughly hewn, sturdy, yet seemingly small sets designed by Alfred Spencer and Hilyard Brown. Sharing time and space with stolid talent like Lilian Gish. And then up and comers, Peter Graves and Shelly Winters.

Cinematography by Stanley Cortez is remarkable throughout. With many memorable moments heightened by music by Walter Schuman. Who instinctively knows where and when its needed. And not.

All helping to create an unique experience that is an odd, eerie blend of Norman Rockwell, American Gothic and a touch of A Nightmare On Elm Street.

Little wonder that The Night of the Hunter was nominated to the National Film Registry in 1955 and was accepted in 1992.


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